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‘Language is a barrier but theatre can break it’
It is not surprising that many people in Shillong do not know MS Sathyu as it is difficult to find a courageous filmmaker and artiste as him in today’s India that is battered and bruised by surgical strikes by bigots and rabble-rousers. The national award-winning filmmaker and thespian was in the city with his theatre group to participate in the ongoing Rashtriya Poorvottar Rang Utsav at U Soso Tham Auditorium.
From movies, theatre to politics, Sathyu can speak on anything with equal severity. But his conversation with The Shillong Times remained restricted only to the two art forms of which he is a master.
The poor footfall at the play, Gul-e-Bakvali, performed by MS Sathyu Productions and Amateur Dramatic Association did not dishearten the veteran artiste. In fact, at the end of the show, he said, “If we as theatre persons can connect even to one person sitting in the auditorium we think we are successful.”
This is not the director’s first time in the northeastern region and he had visited Assam, Manipur and Tripura in the past.
Talking about theatre in the North East, Sathyu said Manipur has a vibrant theatre scene with thespians like Heisnam Kanhailal, Ratan Thiyam and several groups. “In Guwahati there is little bit of activity but here (in Shillong) I don’t know much but it seems it is devoid of theatre and I don’t know why. It is sad. I hope this national festival makes people interested in theatre,” he added.
Language, Sathyu pointed out, could be a factor for plays performed by groups from outside not attracting too many people. “The local language is Khasi and there is not a bit of Hindi. They know only English, besides the local language. But this is a multi-lingual festival. It is good for people to know and be exposed to what is happening outside their state, which ultimately will inspire people to start something indigenously. This festival is a good idea. In many plays, there are a lot of music and dance and not just words. So even without understanding the language one can connect to a play,” he said.
Sathyu asserted that theatre, like films, has its own language and grammar and it can break any kind of barrier, including that of language, because “it has its own expression that will reach the audience”.
“Some nuances may not reach but that does not matter,” he added.
The play that Sathyu’s troupe presented was in Kannada. It was based on an original popular fairy tale written in Persian. Many films in different Indian languages were also made based on the story that has originated from the state of Reva on the banks of the Narmada.
Sathyu’s production has a new script in musical format and has been performed across the country, the recent being in Nagaon and Guwahati. Sudhir Attavar is the playwright.
Sathyu said he brought together the group of 22 young actors without on-stage experience only for this play. The actors were trained in theatre, dance and music for 40 days before they were presented on stage.
Assamese films are
The conversation took a turn from stage to screen and focused on films made in northeastern states. Sathyu said he saw a Khasi film recently that was shot in Meghalaya and he liked it. “A lot of good movies are being made… The state has a tradition of making good films. However, the number of films in Assamese is not as high as in Bengali or Bhojpuri where many commercial films are made. Here (in Assam), more thought-provoking films are made,” he said.
Talking about the reach of regional films, the Padma Shri awardee reiterated that language should not be a barrier. “Maybe you need 5 to 10 minutes to grasp the language but after that you can understand. All performing arts are like that.”
Sathyu said government help is necessary for regional films to survive the competition. According to him, fund should come from the government and the Department of Culture in every state should have a dedicated wing for this.
“There should be infrastructure building. Every state should create an equipment bank so that filmmakers can rent instead of going outside the state and spending more. And infrastructure should not only be for films but also for theatre. You need a theatre hall, proper stage, lighting facilities and not like here (in Shillong). We have been struggling since morning… it (the auditorium) is ill-equipped,” the veteran artiste sounded annoyed.
He pointed out that while the stage is small with less wing space, a piano kept on one of the wing sides is blocking the actors’ movement and there was no one to shift it. “Theatre halls should be maintained and managed by someone who knows about theatre, a professional and not some officer who knows nothing about this art form. But the government does not think about it.”
Oscar for India
When asked about Period. End of Sentence winning the Oscar, Sathyu said he did not see the documentary “but it is a good thing that something like this is being shown”.
“Winning is not important but that it has been selected is itself a big achievement. Getting award is unimportant but that a film has reached there (to so many people in another country) is a great honour,” he asserted.
On regional films not making to the elite lists of awards, Sathyu again pointed out the role of government and the need for a cultural policy.
“The investment made in a film is very high and that much money will not come back through marketing. There are few cinemas to show these movies. There should be a cultural policy. Any government should not think in terms of earning profits but as propagation of culture. It is similar to encouraging research. It is not always that you gain profits from a research work. Instead of thinking about earning back the money all the time, one should take it as a cultural movement that you are giving to the people and enlightening them. That itself is your profit,” he elaborated.
He also stressed the need for multiplexes making space for small-budget movies in local languages at a lesser entry fee.
“There should be some policy for this. You cannot just give licences to multiplexes to show some trash. Most of the time they screen trash to earn money. Government should encourage people to watch quality movies by controlling ticket rates,” Sathyu aptly said.
IPTA in today’s India
Asked whether an IPTA-like movement is possible today, Sathyu emphasised that the Indian People’s Theatre Association is flourishing even after 75 years. “There are a lot of pople now involved. In Patna, we had a conference on the 75th anniversary and nearly 1,400 delegates from all over the country participated. There were seminars and discussions and other activities. It was possible because IPTA is a movement and not an individual’s theatre,” he said.
Censor board & films
Sathyu said though the board claims that it does not have censorship and is only a certification body, censorship is “very much there”.
“What does the term certification mean? It is a kind of a state control over freedom of expression. There is also super censorship. Some local or political organisations take objection to certain films without even watching them. But I think the government should not encourage such things. These local bodies vanish after being heftily paid. These things should stop. Instead of censoring films, the government should censor these people,” said Sathyu, who still can be acerbic and critical about the drawbacks in and the hypocrisy of the system.